Character Assassination Gains New Foothold in U.S. Politics After 2016 Presidential Election

Fairfax, VA – After 2016, researchers question whether media can thwart character assassination in future election coverage. George Mason University’s Arlington campus is the host for the Lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics’ (CARP) conference on March 3-4. Discussion panels will explore the historical and modern applications of character assassination and reputation management. CARP has implications on political discourse and journalism.

“The election of 2016 was different. We all felt it,” said GMU professor Jennifer Keohane at a CARP press conference. “There was a very real difference in the tone and the things that were said in 2016 as opposed to previous years.”

As POLITICO’s Todd Purdum pointed out in August 2016, the presidential election was defined moreso by character assassination attacks than the issues at hand or even either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton’s platforms.

“To judge by the daily parade of headlines and sound bites, the 2016 presidential election has boiled down to one steaming mass of invective, calumny, character assassination and contempt: the madman versus the prevaricator, the bully versus the biddy, the devil you know versus the devil you don’t.” wrote Purdum.

Indeed, character assassination seemed to be the only bipartisan pastime in the months leading up the election.

Hillary Clinton was publically demoted from former First Lady and Secretary of State to a, “nasty woman,” a fugitive criminal, and an enabler of her accused sexually predacious husband. An investigative probe into her use of a private email server while in office as well as criticism of her actions as Secretary of State during the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi fomented a cloud of suspicion that brought so-called ‘Clinton Body Count’ conspiracy theories into mainstream media coverage after the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.

President Donald Trump’s reputation did not survive the race unscathed either. Following the release of recordings in which Trump claimed to grab women “by the pussy,” allegations of ties to billionaire and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein resurfaced with a vengeance. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns fueled further allegations that he claimed false losses to avoid paying federal taxes and bolstered attacks on his record as an entrepreneur, citing his failed Trump University and mortgage-lending businesses as well as a short-lived casino in Atlantic City. Trump was decried as a grifter, a scam artist, a serial litigator, and a sexual predator.

“We will never go back,” said Keohane when asked if the 2016 presidential election had set a new norm for the tone of political discourse. “I wonder though if there might be some reversion to the mean once Trump is no longer in office.”

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